Towards a framework for Cooperative Research
Of course, it is at this early stage when the nature of future opportunities and challenges are most
This is sometimes held to present particular difficulties for public engagement: how can such wider involvement be useful when even the experts are unsure of the possibilities?
The answer to this, is that ‘ambiguity’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘ignorance’ about the implications of science and technology themselves present compelling incentives for more (not less) social engagement.
Individual specialist disciplines (like ‘risk assessment’) may offer powerful and effective responses to ‘risk’ in a narrow sense.
But these wider and more intractable forms of incertitude demand attention under a more plural array of different forms of knowledge.
Public engagement is about just this: including a diversity of knowledges and experience in order to inform more robust long term choices.
Even where we are unsure of the detailed consequences of scientific or technological activities, we may still scrutinise the assumptions, purposes and values that are driving these developments.
It is only through public engagement ‘upstream’, at the earliest stages in science, innovation and policy making that we can ensure that the right questions have been asked, that a full range of interests have been reflected and that society as a whole is effectively learning of the real opportunities and challenges.
Yet the type of discussion that can arise in public engagement may itself pose significant challenges. The focus often centres in one way or another on the exercise of political and economic power in the field of science and technology.
The resulting queries over ‘who?’ and ‘why?’ may sometimes be rather uncomfortable for incumbent decision makers and institutions.
Who is accredited to engage in discussions of science and technology? Who asks the questions to be researched? Who prioritises the allocation of resources? Who makes the assumptions in interpreting the answers?
How and when are results to be communicated and to whom? Which knowledge is held privately and subject to proprietary rights and which is placed in the public domain? What is stated and what left unsaid?
Perhaps partly as a reflection of this, the Seminar identified that a significant obstacle to public engagement often lies in the prevailing attitudes of senior figures – and wider cultural perspectives – in the institutions concerned with the governance of science and technology.
In particular, there is in some such quarters a persistent skepticism over the status of public knowledge and understanding. There are tensions between institutional priorities and more widespread public values and interests.
There is a reluctance to commit to open self-reflection and the sharing of power and influence. Despite the high profile afforded to the language of ‘involving stakeholders’, ‘public participation’ and ‘social inclusion’, such perspectives serve to impede progress in achieving genuine public engagement as a pervasive feature of science governance.
Each individual exercise tends to remain isolated and often decoupled from decision making. A constant pressure is exerted on those exercises that are undertaken, such that they are forestalled, or become diluted, diverted, constrained, or eventually neglected in the subsequent policy process.
Lessons and Responsibilities
But contemporary attitudes in high-level policy making are not the only difficulty faced in ‘mainstreaming’ public engagement in science governance.
The Seminar also identified ways in which advocates and practitioners may themselves also unintentionally contributes to the current isolated state of genuine public engagement and low level of general uptake.
For instance, a tendency to over-promise and over-claim may sometimes raise unjustified expectations. Just because public engagement offers an effective response to challenges of ‘framing’ science and technological activities, does not mean it is a panacea for wider difficulties of credibility and trust.
Inevitable shortfalls in the delivery of overstated promises, can serve to compound skepticism. Likewise, there can sometimes be questions over independence and professionalism and a lack of commitment to evaluation.
Indeed, there is a general lack of attention to the complexities in the way in which evaluation itself necessarily depends on perspective and context.
Engagement processes can sometimes be overly complex. Greater attention might be given to the proportionality achieved in the costs and benefits of engagement.
Much could be done to be cautious, self-critical, realistic and pragmatic on these issues. Beyond this, insufficient consideration is often given to the wider communication of science – both as part of individual exercises and in the wider encompassing processes of public engagement.
Effective public engagement can take place only against a wider background of successful science communication.
The role of the media is especially important in this respect, requiring greater attention to the exercise of responsibilities, both in the accurate handling of scientific detail and in the frank and measured treatment of uncertainties.
With the development of the Internet, this also presents a series of challenges and opportunities – especially in relation to the ‘scaling up’ of public engagement to address higher levels in the governance process.
In seeking to learn the lessons for developing more generalized two-way dialogue in science communication, much can be learned from the accumulated hard-won experience gained by the ‘science shop’ movement.
A further crucial series of questions concern the need for systematic reflection and evaluation on the strengths and weaknesses of public engagement, and the nature of the relationship between more direct participatory forms of public engagement, and the wider institutions of representative democracy.
Although addressing the practical needs of policy makers for robust methods of appraisal, evaluation presents a series of neglected difficulties. Rather than being a simple question of identifying ‘best practice’, important aspects of evaluation depend on the context and perspective in question.
With respect to the particular issue of the representativeness of participatory process, this also depends on what is meant by ‘representation’ in the first place.
Again, the answer depends on the context and viewpoint. In the end, the conclusion must be that care should be exercised with overly simplistic notions of ‘evaluation’ or ‘representation’ and that greater efforts are required to understand the ways in which these might legitimately vary.
In practice, the relationship between representative democracy and participatory methods becomes most clear and complementary, when engagement is approached as a means to ‘open up’ the range of possible decisions, rather than as a way to close this down.
Choice among the options thereby identified then becomes a clearer matter of democratic accountability. In other words, participatory approaches are often better seen as an aid to ‘decision making’ than as a means of ‘decision taking’.
In the end, the appropriate relationship between participatory process and representative democracy is best treated as an explicit focus of attention in participation itself.
Against this background, the responsibilities for ‘mainstreaming’ public engagement in science governance do not lie only with senior decision makers.
There is much that researchers, advocates and practitioners may also do to be more effective and persuasive. In particular, more could be done to address high-level policy makers in a language that they can readily understand and by reference to their own interests and values.
This does not necessarily mean adopting these same interests and values in an instrumental fashion.
Rather, it is a matter of the effective communication of the wider ‘business case’ for participation – taking seriously and treating with respect the pressing nature of real institutional priorities and constraints.
Designs and Possibilities
Drawing on this discussion, a number of more specific practical conclusions arise for the design both of general frameworks and individual exercises in public engagement.
These can be discussed according to a series of frequently raised questions in discussions over public engagement:
• When to engage? This can occur at all stages in the governance process, but is particularly important at the earliest steps in ‘framing’. Even if outcomes are uncertain, attention can focus on the driving purposes and visions.
• At what scale? Public engagement is not just about one-off individual exercises, but involves a coherent, continuous, nested, multi-scale process permeating different levels of governance.
• What to prioritise? Be clear whether the primary purpose is to enhance: (i) the democratic process; (ii) the state of knowledge or protection; or (iii) levels of trust and credibility in particular policies. Either way, social interests and values frame the technical details, not the other way around.
• Who does the framing? Ensure a high degree of autonomy from initiating or sponsoring bodies.
Separate the functions of stakeholder oversight in design and the participatory process itself.
• Who to include? Be clear and realistic about goals and recruit accordingly. Allow participants to identify gaps. Avoid overblown claims, aspirations or criticisms concerning representativeness.
• Which balance to strike? Be proportionate in the balancing of costs and benefits of the process
itself and apply a ‘principle of responsibility’ to the consequent recommendations.
• What is independence? This lies less in efforts at definitive ‘objectivity’ or ‘neutrality’ than in the pluralism and diversity of the perspectives involved. Provide participants with freedom to
negotiate, but ensure that effective links are retained with the constituencies they represent.
• How to convey outcomes? Depending on purpose and context, engagement may aim at ‘closing
down’ or ‘opening up’ the scope of wider policy discussion. In the former, outcomes are resented as prescriptive recommendations. In the latter they are plural, with explicit conditions attached.
Taken together, these elements of effective design for public engagement address the full range of
contexts, stages and scales in the science governance process.
In particular, they span distinctions between fields of research policy, science advice and risk regulation with which this Seminar was concerned. However there also emerged in the Seminar discussions a bigger picture concerning the general orientation of scientific research and technological innovation activities.
Here, it is important to recall the newly intensified governance agendas noted at the beginning of this executive summary.
Current European policy-making is driving towards a competitive ‘knowledge based society’, whilst striving to ensure effective stewardship of ‘democratic governance’ and active efforts to promote ‘sustainability’ and ‘precaution’ in science and technology.
These present a series ofpowerful imperatives for radical innovation – and require a commitment to change – in the sciencegovernance system.
Some of the principal implications that were discussed at the Seminar, might be summed up as a move towards an emerging paradigm of ‘co-operative research’.
This is a new form of research process, which involves both researchers and non-researchers in close co-operative engagement.
It encompasses a full spectrum of approaches, frameworks and methods, from interdisciplinary collaboration through stakeholder negotiation to transdisciplinary deliberation and citizen participation.
In particular, co-operative research requires effective engagement with stakeholders and public constituencies in order to explore the driving aims and purposes, the alternative orientations, and the wider social and environmental implications of scientific research and technological innovation.
To these ends, we may identify a series of concrete distinguishing features of co-operative research.
• The process of ‘social learning’ enabled in co-operative research is as important as the scientific and technological outcomes that arise.
• The way in which co-operative research is ‘framed’ is an explicit and autonomous part of the research process itself – and not imposed from outside.
• Co-operative research treats different forms of knowledge and understanding in a symmetrical fashion, and affords equal status to contending social values and interests.
• Co-operative research allows for more effective integration of currently artificially separate processes of research design, implementation and dissemination.
• Co-operative research includes a wide variety of specific approaches to inclusive engagement in different contexts and at different stages, levels and scales in science governance.
• Co-operative research clarifies the essential role of science: not as a definitive body of knowledge, but as a systematic way to ensure effective communication, transparency and accountability.
• Co-operative research embodies a richer, more positive understanding of the facilitatory role of social science, both in framing, as well as in presenting research and appraising the social impacts.
• The development of practices for co-operative research is itself an important focus for further research, and offers important arenas for innovation and experimentation on these very practices.
The report concludes by identifying a series of specific strategic research needs of particular relevance to DG RTD, followed by a bullet point summary of the main elements in the argument.
In the end, the key challenge in realizing the full promise of co-operative research for the wider process of science governance, lies in a shift in our basic understanding of the relationship between science and society.
This applies as much to social scientists, practitioners and specialist policy makers in this field, as it does to senior decision takers, wider stakeholders and the general public.
In short, we need to move away from the somewhat fragmented, introspective and reactive preoccupations of science and society, to a more integrated, open and proactive understanding of the inescapable place of science in society.